For the second time in as many months, we’re featuring a book that’s set in the beautiful state of Maine (the first was The Meryl Streep Movie Club by Mia March). In fact, if you look at the covers of these two books next to each other, you might suspect that they both use a photo of the same lighthouse. Let the image serve as a beacon to you to pick up and read both books!
The Mermaid Collector is the second novel from Erika Marks, a native New Englander who was raised in Maine. She now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with her husband and their two daughters. Erika has worked as a carpenter, an illustrator, an art director and a cake decorator. I was interested in how her creative background influenced the characters and themes in her latest novel.
SS: You said a mosaic inspired you to write The Mermaid Collector. The main character, Tess, is a sculptor. Her mother, Ruby, was also an artist. How is art important to this book?
EM: First off, thank you so much, Alison, for having me here! Now to these great questions…
Art is a huge part of my life. I was a professional illustrator and I’ve always been an artist so it felt very natural to me to write about a character who related to her environment in a creative way, and one whose moods were deeply influenced by that connection. Admittedly, Ruby suffers from an instability that complicates her relationship with her world and those she loves within it.
SS: Colors seem to play a big role in the book as well. For example, Ruby tells Tess that she hates the color white. One of the outsiders who arrives in Cradle Harbor is dressed all in white. What was your intention with the use of color in the book?
EM: I love that you picked up on Beverly appearing in all white! Absolutely; color did play a strong part in the story. Having grown up in Maine where the landscape, architecturally speaking, is subdued, and snow can quickly blanket the world in white, I liked the idea of Ruby coming in as a burst of emotional color and that her appearance, and the vitality of her and Tess, would impact the quieter palette of Cradle Harbor. I’ll never forget when I moved down to New Orleans and how I was struck immediately by the use of color on the homes. I fell quickly, and deeply, in love with that city in great part because of that. At the same time, I have great love for the earthy tones of Maine. There is tremendous beauty in clapboards weathered to a soft gray, to homes blending into the land, the browns and the greens, the dark olive of the sea. In writing The Mermaid Collector, I desired to highlight the contrasts: in people and their relationships, and certainly too in their environments.
SS: In the Acknowledgments, you confessed to knowing very little about lighthouses and sea travel before you wrote The Mermaid Collector. What research did you conduct when preparing to write, and what was the most interesting fact that you incorporated into the story?
EM: It’s true—I knew so little. For research I visited a lot of lighthouses and read historical accounts of lightkeepers. There were many gripping stories of harrowing rescues—I had never considered the innate dangers in being a lightkeeper but they were rescuers and medics on top of everything else—nor did I really consider the implications of such an isolated life, which clearly impacted Lydia’s story as her husband Linus grew more and more distant from her, and her living situation only exacerbated that. Running a lighthouse was tremendous, grueling work, and the men and women and children who dedicated their lives and their families to it are to be commended.
SS: In the book, there is a legend that the lighthouse keeper Linus Harris left his beloved wife and waded into the ocean with three other men to reunite with their mermaid lovers. How does the Mermaid Mutiny of 1888 shape the entire town of Cradle Harbor? You’ve said you were interested in not just how it affected the people closest to the story and then the history, but an entire town. How did you explore that in the book?
EM: Even before I began the novel, I was interested in pursuing this idea of how folklore can have a lasting effect on a community. Growing up in Maine, I was very aware of how the history of a small town can become its identity and at the same time, its history can, not surprisingly, be reinterpreted over time, and how one event—especially one that speaks to the fantastical, as most legends do—can leave a lasting impression on people who might otherwise consider themselves very rooted in reality. The residents of Cradle Harbor are, for the most part, very grounded. Yet they have a legend about mermaids that even the most pragmatic members of the community have been charmed by. For Tess, an outsider looking to come in, the legend speaks to her on an even deeper level. Having lost her mother to the sea, mermaids provide proof of life’s magic that she and her mother had always clung to.
SS: You created not just a contemporary love story, but weaved in historical accounts and the background story of the lighthouse keeper, Linus, and his wife, Lydia. What inspired you to structure the book this way?
EM: Believe it or not, I didn’t have the structure of the dual narratives until nearly one of the final drafts. All along, I knew I would incorporate Linus’ log book to reveal what happened in his mind just before the Mutiny, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Lydia and wondering what her story was. And out of that exploration, I not only discovered that her story was compelling but it was also very different from the one the town imagined they knew all these years.
SS: Tess feels like an outcast in Cradle Harbor; growing up, she repeatedly bears the brunt of the gossip and exile created by her mother’s eccentric behavior. Why do you think she remains in Cradle Harbor after Ruby’s death?
EM: I think Tess, for all of her obstinacy to inclusion, still seeks the validation of the place she has come to know as home. Defending her mother’s memory becomes her mission, though I think she feels a deep attachment to Cradle Harbor because she knows her mother felt so tied to its magic and history. As long as Tess remains there, she remains close to her mother. And Buzz, Tess’ stepfather and the man who loved Ruby with his whole heart, is a big part of that connection for Tess.
SS: You’re a native of Maine, but you and your family have been living in the South for some time now. What do you like about living in the South? What do you miss about living in Maine?
EM: I feel very grateful to be living here in North Carolina. It’s been many years since I’ve lived in Maine but I have family still living there so I’m able to return there and reconnect with the people and places I grew up with, which is important to me. I miss the coast of Maine terribly—the ruggedness of it—which is in such sharp contrast to the Carolina coast that I’ve come to know and love for its uniqueness. There’s so much I love about living in the South but at the top of my list is the openness of the people I’ve met here—the warmth and the constant desire to share stories.
SS: Have you had a chance to sample some Southern literature? Do you have any favorites?
EM: I was fortunate to take a class in Southern Literature in college with a gifted teacher who shared her passion for Faulkner, O’Connor, Welty and Hurston. I have a very vivid memory of being deeply impressed by Hurston’s prose in particular—the rawness of her descriptions and being made aware as a student of writing that there were many ways to express our experiences impacted me tremendously. Conroy’s The Prince of Tides was a definitive read for me. It is a magnificent novel but I very much appreciated the Southern landscape it described—especially in contrast to the life and residents Tom Wingo encounters when he arrives in New York. There is a lushness to Southern life and literature that has always appealed to me. The longer I live here in North Carolina, the more I look forward to infusing my work with the influences of my new home.
SS: What about Southern food? Any favorites?
EM: Oh, where to begin! I am married to a native New Orleanian who is a tremendous cook. In my first novel, Little Gale Gumbo, I drew liberally from his expertise and his family recipes for both the novel and the recipes which are a part of the reading guide. We met when I lived in New Orleans so I was already a huge fan of New Orleans food—specifically pralines and crawfish anything. My husband’s crawfish etouffee is by far my favorite dish but I still lose my head over a praline.
SS: What are you working on now in terms of your writing? Are there other themes or mosaics you’re ready to explore?
EM: I’m working on my next novel, The Guest House, which is releasing in late summer of next year. It is set on Cape Cod and follows the lives and star-crossed loves of two families who can’t seem to stay away from each other: one local and the other a wealthy Southern family who summers in one of the massive cottages along the shore.